For better or for worse, US-developed PC RPGs often carry a significantly different feel from their more ubiquitous console counterparts, even when the aforementioned games are ported to consoles. Smacker's Silver is no exception; although the title has now been ported over to the Dreamcast, it's still a distinctly unique experience from the Lunar and Final Fantasy brand of RPGs. Unfortunately, "different" doesn't necessarily mean "better"; even though Silver is probably the Dreamcast's best US-released RPG, it doesn't stand out from the pack when the genre as a whole is considered.
Silver takes place in a vast land known as Jarrah. As the game begins, Jarrah is ruled under the iron fist of a tyrannical mage named Silver. Silver has decided to take a wife, and his crazed search for one leads to the abduction of nearly every woman of childbearing age in Jarrah.
Meanwhile, on the continent of Verdante, protagonist David lives an idyllic life with his wife Jennifer and his grandfather (generically named "Granddad"), training to someday become a great knight. One morning, in the middle of a sparring match between David and Granddad, a company of Silver's troops arrives at their home and kidnaps Jennifer as a possible bride for the wicked wizard. Our heroes give chase, but they don't manage to catch up with Silver's troops before the perilous prestidigitator's lackeys escape on a ship.
So, it's up to David to find and rescue Jennifer and all of the other damsels in distress. Our protagonist's quest will not only lead him towards his reunification with his true love, it gives him an opportunity to discover that Silver's plans are much more sinister than the mere kidnapping of Jarrah's women and to try to put a stop to them.
As anyone can see, Silver's storyline starts out as a pedestrian save-the-princess-type affair. Unfortunately, it fails to progress much beyond this uninspired and overused RPG premise. The events of the story are rather dull, and they don't spark any more than a passing interest to players. In addition, the storyline is severely stunted by the nonlinearity of the gameplay; although the few major events of the game definitely have a sequence to them, the bulk of the game is spent meandering around all over Jarrah searching for eight orbs needed to stop Silver.
Character development is inadequate, too. On the plus side, most of the characters in the game display well-defined primary personality traits. However, just about none of them have any depth to their personalities, and the characters don't really grow during the course of the game.
By far the best aspect of the storyline is the impressive dialogue. Like Infogames' first Playstation RPG, Koudelka, Silver's dialogue ranks way above average among US-released games of its genre. The text flows amazingly naturally, and it contains a lot of sharp wit in its creative utilization of the English language. Moments of clever humor are also quite common, and Silver deserves a lot of credit for not having to resort to pop culture jokes to achieve that effect.
One area where Silver manages to forge a distinct identity for itself is its gameplay. Best described as an action RPG, Silver's gameplay mechanics are somewhat unusual when compared to others of its genre. For one thing, it's the only action RPG that I've ever played featuring polygonal characters on prerendered backgrounds that vary in camera angle and zoom from screen to screen. In addition, Silver features a unique battle interface in which one of the trigger buttons on the Dreamcast pad must be depressed in order for the player to access the full arsenal of his or her playable character's melee attacks. Missile weapons and magic are similar as well; a trigger button must be depressed in order for a character to use them, too.
Silver's innovations prove to be its downfall, though. The highly varied camera angles and levels of zoom prove to be a major nuisance, often obscuring characters and enemies alike. Although the varying backgrounds showed up in RPGs like Square's Chrono Cross and Playstation Final Fantasy games, they weren't a problem there because the battles were turn-based and took place on a separate screen. However, in Silver, the battles are extremely action oriented, and they take place on the same screen as exploration. Therefore, in many cases, it's annoyingly difficult to follow the action in combat, which greatly detracts from the enjoyment of the game.
The trigger-button-based combat interface proves to be highly restrictive as well. Characters can't move while either of the trigger buttons is depressed, so they can't attack on the run. This is problematic because character attacks are executed pretty slowly. Being able to move and attack simultaneously would have been more realistic, and it would have significantly enhanced the battle gameplay in this action RPG.
Most of the rest of Silver's gameplay utilizes more tried-and-true elements of action RPG gameplay, and the results from these aspects of play fare a bit better than the innovations. Magic, items, and a variety of weapons can be used in combat to attack enemies or aid allies. Skills are acquired as you advance in the game, and they can also be used against enemies. Players can have up to 3 playable characters at once; only one is player-controlled, with the other 2 under AI command. Control can be freely switched between available party characters at any time, which gives a lot of flexibility to the player. Like many action RPGs, there is no experience point system; characters level up after certain bosses are defeated.
Perhaps the best feature of Silver's gameplay is the ease with which its world can be traversed. At any time other than during battles, players can view all of Jarrah as well as travel to any area of it by simply pulling up the map screen and placing the cursor over the desired destination. This map innovation allows players unprecedented flexibility in traveling, and it saves a lot of time because it eliminates pointless travel over previously explored areas. It also allows players to escape dungeons when they get into trouble, which is crucial because most save points in Silver can only be used once.
In spite of its solidity in its more traditional action RPG elements, Silver still runs into some execution problems. The AI of the computer-controlled characters is absolutely atrocious; when you aren't controlling them, they're more of a liability than anything else. Like Square's Legend of Mana, you can't avoid battles or even escape from them once they begin. However, the effects of this restriction are much more severe in Silver than in the extremely easy LoM, because you actually get in over your head a fair amount in Silver. Since you're stuck in battle once it begins, the only way out in these situations is to die.
Like its gameplay, Silver's control fails to escape the ranks of mediocrity. Characters can move in 8 directions, and pushing the analog stick on the Dreamcast pad harder causes them to move a bit faster, but even at their fastest speed, they move along pretty slowly through the screens. They respond pretty sluggishly to changes in direction, too, and getting stuck on objects in the background is not uncommon.
Where the control is worst, though, is where it's needed the most. In battles, control of the trigger-button interface is terrible, which is part of the reason why the system fails. The trigger-based battle commands are extremely sluggish to the point of discouraging players from using any attacks other than the standard sword slash, which doesn't require trigger-button interaction. The targeting system for magic and missile weapons is similarly troublesome; selecting the correct target takes a lot more time than it should.
Silver also uses a pie-shaped menu rather than that of a standard console RPG, and the results turn out poorly as well. The pie menu is a chore to navigate through, and it inadequately explains its features and contents to the player. In addition, cursor control in the pie menu isn't responsive enough.
Graphically, Silver is somewhat of an enigma. When its prerendered backgrounds are inspected closely, players will be able to see that a high level detail exists. However, when players look at the screens purely in a playing context, the backgrounds look extremely plain. This is due in part to the drab color palette in Silver, but art itself fails to distinguish itself in any way at all.
The polygonal characters fare even worse. They are completely lacking in detail, and even though they don't really get blocky close up, their lack of artistic intricacy causes them to hold almost no appeal. Enemies are similar; even the bosses are amazingly plain. The spell effects are pretty feeble, too.
The CG movies in Silver are curiously similar to the prerendered backgrounds in the game. Close inspection reveals their quality, but players casually watching them will find little appeal in them at all.
Like most US-developed games, the art style in Silver is distinctively different from that of the anime-style art in most console RPGs. In Silver's case, this change of pace is for the worse; even though the medieval-style character art is nowhere near as bad as that of Crave's Shadow Madness and Konami's Vandal Hearts games, it isn't as appealing as that of even the average RPG.
Largely on the strength of its excellent voice acting, Silver's sound is one of its strongest departments. The actors in Infogames' first Dreamcast RPG turn in a fine effort, with voices that flow well and are expressive without being overtly dramatic. Each character has a voice that fits his or her personality excellently, with only a few exceptions. The only weakness here is that the character cast is much larger than the voice acting cast, and it's very obvious when actors are recycled into multiple characters.
The sound effects and soundtrack are solid, too, though neither really stands out. Silver's score is more ambient than melodic; it's decently composed, but there's nothing memorable about it. In addition, it seems more suited to a survival horror game than to an RPG, even though Silver isn't a horror-themed RPG.
Although Silver is likely the best US-released RPG on the Dreamcast so far, it doesn't compare to any of the better Playstation or Saturn RPGs. Unless the Dreamcast is the only system you own and you really can't wait for Grandia II or Shen Mue, this one isn't highly recommended. Silver's overall feel is quite similar to Shadow Madness, though, so those who enjoyed Crave's first RPG might want to check this one out.